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The quest for “small” is costing us big

November 7, 2011

For the past ten years, the Walpole school district has been pursuing the ultimate impossible dream: smaller classes.

This seemingly-unattainable vision has been the driving force behind the perennial financial difficulties in the Walpole school system during the past decade. Starting in 2001, school officials have repeatedly sought to hike taxes and fees while simultaneously making mammoth high-profile cuts to drive class sizes down. The cuts and fee increases have hurt – but school officials say classes still aren’t small enough.

The assumption has always been that higher class sizes are detrimental to student learning. But with Walpole school officials once again pushing for another Proposition 2.5 tax override for next year’s town election, now would the optimal opportunity for the Walpole school district to consider reflecting on this assumption that has cost the community so much during the past decade. How much money has this assertion cost us? Is it true in the first place? Can we still maintain a solid school district without continually pressing for smaller classes at any cost?

In a speech last year to the American Enterprise Institute, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan said “one of the most expensive assumptions embedded in school budgets is the belief that reducing class sizes improves student achievement.” Indeed, a growing number of studies and experts are confirming what a lot of students, teachers and parents already knew: class sizes often have little impact on students in certain grades, and student achievement largely depends on how good the teacher in the classroom is. The progressive Washington, DC-based Center for American Progress (CAP) noted in a report earlier this year that “researchers agree that teacher quality is the single most important in-school determinant of how much students learn.”

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea and Japan, home to two of the best education systems in the world that are far ahead of the United States, consistently average between 33 and 36 students per class in secondary schools, while primary schools there have slightly smaller classes. In fact, Duncan told the AEI that teachers in those two countries sometimes request larger classes because they believe a greater distribution of students and skill levels can improve learning.

The federal government, along with states like California and Florida have spent billions over the past two decades trying to reduce class sizes in almost every grade. But student achievement in the states where the money has been focused, including Florida and California, has seen little improvement.

Duncan and many other experts, as well as researchers at CAP, have suggested that school districts focus on keeping class sizes in early elementary school grades (K-3) somewhat small, but allow for some increases in class sizes in upper grades where it may not matter. In essence, Duncan is urging school districts to lessen their focus on class size, and concentrate more on improving teacher quality. Reinvesting these valuable education dollars can save tremendous amounts of money while also boosting student achievement, he argues. In a school district like Walpole, where there is no lack of quality teachers, the opportunities for significant budget-savings could be particularly promising using this approach.

If those conclusions are hard to believe, just take a look at Walpole’s current schools.

As it is, there are a number of larger classes at Walpole High that have as many as 30 students. Yet with classes that big, Walpole High was still ranked 49th best in the state by Boston Magazine last year, a testament to Walpole’s quality teaching staff. The magazine made particular mention of the fact that the Walpole High foreign language program was one of the best in their rankings. But any Walpole student or teacher will confirm that many foreign language classes at WHS are at top-capacity. Why, then, did the department as a whole get high praise? The answer is pretty simple: look at the quality of the teachers, reflected in the fact that the Department Head, George Watson, was named the Massachusetts Teacher of the Year in 2009 for excellence in teaching.

In just a year from now, many seniors at Walpole High School will be forced into massive lecture halls at colleges across the country with one professor who won’t even know their name in a room full of hundreds of students. So the notion that those same students somehow can’t do well in a large class this year, while at Walpole High, is illogical.

As a whole, the Walpole school district was ranked 55th best in the state by Boston Magazine this year, after editors decided to rank whole districts instead of individual schools. Walpole’s student-teacher ratios were far lower, and per-pupil spending far higher, than many other districts that were ranked better than Walpole on the list – even those with comparable enrollment numbers. That fact proves that high spending doesn’t always translate into higher student achievement.

Despite losing dozens of teachers during the past few years, Walpole’s SAT and MCAS scores, covering all subjects, have been consistently higher than the state average during the past several years and were higher than many other schools in Boston’s rankings.

Yet the screams for smaller classes in Walpole have not dissipated and have only gotten louder.

Former Walpole High School student Christine Coury, who ran for School Committee last year, had it right when she told The Walpole Times before the election: “As long as students are receiving their quality education, their class sizes shouldn’t matter – there could be 50 students in the class, there could be 10 students in the class. It honestly depends on the quality of the teacher and how well their classroom management skills are.” Depending on who is asked, many students and teachers at Walpole High will also say that class sizes don’t matter to them. Coury did not win a seat on the Committee, but her views were obviously ignored by those who did win.

Before they move forward with an override next year, Walpole school officials may want to consider abandoning the goal of smaller classes, in favor of more cost-effective policies that reflect the realities of today’s education system. If nothing else, the vision of smaller classes seems to continually remain out of reach and it might be time for a new approach.

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